Does gear matter in Landscape photography?
This is a widely debated question that there is no easy and correct yes and no answer to, it always depends. The short answer is YES but its maybe not in the way you think. In this blog post i will go through my reasoning in why the gear you use do matter to some extent in Landscape photography and why its important to use the correct gear for your purpose.
A well-known concept in photography is the exposure triangle. It describes the relationship between ISO, Aperture and Shutter speed to obtain a proper exposure of your picture. All these three are of equal value to the user when they want to find the correct exposure. But all three have different effects, good or bad, on the picture. The higher the ISO number you use, the more noise you get in the picture. The higher shutter spend you use, the more blurred the image becomes if your object is moving. The faster the aperture you use, the narrower becomes the area in the image that is in focus. This is well known in photography and the photographer use this to its advantages. How good the photographer are in using those three comes back to his or hers experiences and the skill to read the situation and adapt. The same concept as the exposure triangle can be applied to a Landscape photographers ability to take pleasing and high quality images. But in this case it goes down to three other factors that i call "The image quality triangle" witch is:
The photographers quality of gear
The photographers technical skill
The photographers artistry skill
In the same way as the exposure triangle all these three has an impact on what the outcome of you images will be but in this case they are not of equal importance. Your artistry skill is the most important thing. Its you who imagine, compose and execute the image. Your gear is the means to an end but the quality of the gear are of less importance if you are a hilly skilled photographer. If you don´t know how to bring out the best of the gear you have then you wont get better images with higher quality gear either. In the following sections below ill go through the different nodes in The image quality triangle.
The photographers quality of gear
This part is all about the fundamental gear you need or may not need for landscape photography. You obviously need a camera and a lens of some sort but you may not need filters, tripod, shutter release cables etc. Above you can see five different images shot with five different cameras. Can you spot what camera used? Here is the list in no particular order:
Samsung Galaxy S6 mobile phone
Samsung NX2000 with the kit lens 20-50 mm
Nikon D200 with a Sigma 18-200 mm super zoom lens
Fuji X-T1 with the 18-55 mm kit lens
You will find the answer on my Flickr page.
Think back for a moment. Ansel Adams didn´t have a Nikon D850 but he still was able to create amazing and pleasing images. He used gear he liked and could master. He was very skilled in his artistry and technical knowledge and could bring out the best in his gear. So what gear should you buy?
All of that depends on what you want to shoot and where/when you will shoot it and how you will shoot it. It also depends on your technical and artistry skill level. There is no point in carrying around an oversize heavy tripod if you most of the time shot handheld and use the lens or cameras image stabilization systems as the main tool for sharper photos. Choose a lighter one instead or opt it out totally. We can break down the gear in a few fundamental parts:
Lenses and filter-systems
Tripods and other accessories
Ask your selves these five questions. What budget do I have?, What will I shoot?, Where and when will I shoot?, How will I share and display my images? and What is my goal with my photography? Those five questions can be a good starting point in determining what you should consider when choosing gear. If you only going to shoot landscapes, most of the time travel or hike to the locations and only display your images online the gear that would benefit you the most is probably weather resistant, lighter and smaller sized gear. In this case, the sensor of the camera and its resolution would be of less importance for you.
"Camera features is vastly more important then the sensor size."
Camera bodies - Here we have a bunch of variations but today its probably more likely that you would choose between a mirror-less, DSLR or fixed lens system (point and shoot camera). The mirror-less system is probably the future for cameras and nowadays they have reached fairly close to the DSLR reign of capabilities regarding image quality, auto focus performance etc. There are also most commonly three different types och sensor sizes to choose from and those are micro 4/3, APS-C and Full Frame sensors. There are some general things to consider when choosing between those three sensor sizes.
A full camera system based on the FF sensor tends to be more expensive than the other sensor types.
The body sizes of the camera tend to be overall larger and heavier on a full frame (FF) than other sensor types.
Ability to handle noise in the image with higher ISO tends to be better with increased sensor size.
The depth of field will be smaller with a larger sensor with the same aperture settings
There is no correlation between sensor size and in-camera functions
In today's cameras, the megapixel count is more than enough for most of us using the cameras for only posting images online. So one could say that cameras with a pixel count of up to 14 mp are in the low range and sensors with 14-26 mp are in the medium range and 26 mp upwards are in the high range. That does not mean that an image taken with your phone that has a sensor in the low range will produce bad pictures for posting online on your Instagram account. It will do just fine but if you would like to print a high-quality large image that will be enjoyed up close then you would probably be better off with a larger megapixel count.
Today the camera features are vastly more important than the sensor size of the camera when making a buying decision. So look for camera ergonomics. How it handles and feels in your hands Does it have a tilting screen and are the buttons and dials in good positions for your hands? Do you want an EVF or only an optical viewfinder? Look for smart internal camera functions that can help you take better pictures such as focus stacking, image stabilization, focus peaking, auto focus performance etc.
Lenses and filter systems - When you know what you going, for the most part, photograph you have a good starting point for choosing what lenses you can benefit from. In Landscapes, many consider a wide to super wide focal length lens as essential and they often combined that with some kind of telephoto lens. Some like a more normal wide lens and a telephoto combination. If you travel a lot maybe you would benefit more from a super zoom lens combined with a prime lens or wide zoom lens. Here are some examples of different sensor sizes:
Micro 4/3: Super wide to wide focal length 14 mm and below, wide to normal focal length 12-40 mm, normal to telephoto focal length 40 mm upwards
APS-C: Super wide to wide focal length 20 mm and below, wide to normal focal length 18-55 mm, normal to telephoto focal length 55 mm upwards
Full frame (FF): Super wide to wide focal length 35 mm and below, wide to normal focal length 24-70 mm, normal to telephoto focal length 70 mm upwards
Ask your selves these questions. What is my budget for lenses? Do I need a lens that is capable to produce sharp shots without a tripod in low light situations? What type of photos will I take? Will I hike or travel to my locations? Generally, the lenses for full-frame DSLR cameras tend to be bigger and heavier while mirror-less lenses tend to be smaller and lighter. For the most part, you can use a full frame DSLR lens on an APS-C body of the same make and lens mount but its less likely the other way around. Lenses that are considered to be fast, capable of handling big apertures, tend to be heavier and more expensive than a lens with a less fast aperture. If you shoot landscapes most of the time you probably seldom use big apertures and there is less need for you to buy fast lenses.
For landscape photography, you most likely will take images that need long shutter speeds or balancing out exposure levels between the sky and land. You can also find your selves in situations where you want to take a picture of water and remove some of the reflections in order to see stones etc under the surface. In these situations, some kind of neutral density filter ND, gradual neutral filter GND or polarizing filter CPL would probably the most common solution. ND and GND filters can be found in two different types. Square filters or round filters. Square filters need some kind of mount while round filters can be screwed on to the front of the lens. Regardless what you choose it's beneficial to buy a filter that is large enough so it can be used for all of your lenses with or without step-up rings. For landscape photography, you don´t need filters but they are a tool that can make things a bit easier. The filter types I found most valuable are ND filters and CPL filter. GND filters are pretty easy to simulate by bracketing your shots and blend them in post but if you don´t plan on using post-processing that much then GND filters can come handy to balance out the exposure. In this case i would say buy the quality of filters you afford.
Tripods other accessories - When it comes to tripods and ball heads i would say that buy as good gear as your budget allows. Especially when shooting landscapes. The tripod will be most of the time the foundation you put your camera on and you want it to be as sturdy and comfortable working with as possible. If you travel a lot then you would choose a lighter tripod but if you can don´t downsize the max height of the tripod and go for lighter carbon fiber instead. Also, ask your selves if you going to shoot in water environments. If that´s true you are probably better off choosing carbon fiber as material then aluminium because the tripod will last longer. The ball head must be able to handle your camera and your heaviest lens including possible filters without any problem. If not sure go one size bigger.
There are a vast amount of accessories you can buy for your camera so I won't go into all of them. For landscape photography, an L bracket can help you a lot when shooting in portrait mode. A shutter release cable can be essential when shooting exposures longer than 30 seconds on most cameras so that´s a handy tool to have. If the camera can connect to your phone it may also be used instead of a shutter release cable. There are plenty of off-brand options available to choose one that´s simple and get the job done. If you plan on shooting panoramas there are many different tools available. The most important thing is that you can level out your tripod to make stitching the panorama easier. You can use a leveling base for your tripod or you can buy special pan head, such as the Genesis PC-02. Pan heads are probably more easy to use and a bit lighter. But ask your selves. How often am I going to shoot panoramas? If the answer is seldom you probably don´t need to buy that kind of gear but if it is every time you go out you would benefit from investing in a good pan head and nodal rail.
But where do I spend my money if I have a fixed budget you might ask?
The answer to this question is on high-quality lenses. Always leave some room in the budget so you can buy a high quality super wide to wide zoom lens and a telephoto zoom lens. Mostly you get a kit lens to your body and that would be sufficient for your normal focal length purposes. As an example, the Fuji 18-55 mm kit lens is a good performing kit lens. Depending on your budget shift the money towards the wider range lenses. When you mainly shoot landscapes the quality of the optics is your main tool for producing great images. See it as your eye in the photography gear.
Next, you should get your selves a good tripod that can handle wind, water and all the different surfaces you throw at it. It should be sturdy, and high/low enough and the ball head should be big so it can handle the load of the camera and lenses without lagging. In landscape photography its beneficial if it can handle wind and water so a carbon fiber tripod with a leg diameter of 28 mm and more is a good starting point.
And last spend your money on a camera body. Don´t spend so much time thinking about sensor size and pixel count. Look at the features you want such as button placements, weight, weather resistant, handling/grip, and intelligent camera functions. Then choose the one that has the functions that you want and worry about sensor/pixel size last. If you have money left spend that on a good L bracket and shutter release cable.
The photographer's technical knowledge
Do you always shoot in "Auto"? Do you know what every dial and button on your camera do? Have you made custom functions to any of your function buttons on the camera? Do you know what focus stacking is and how to perform it? Do you know how to perform correct hyperfocal focusing? All of those questions apply to your technical knowledge of your gear and the fundamentals of photography. Depending on your skill level you might benefit more from a highly automated camera or a more technical high-end camera.
So ask your selves, am I able to bring out the most of the current camera I use for my type of photography? How often does the functionality of the gear I use limit me in taking a shot? Am I capable of taking a sharp image regardless of the situation with my current gear? The first question is more general and refers to what you use your camera for and how you use it. Many of us do things out of habit so we most often repeat what we have done before and does not explore new functions and see what those can do and help us with. You can probably in your head right now write down your most commonly used features of the camera. Do you find any functionality that you are missing or wish you had?
"There isn’t a perfect camera on the market, it’s your technical training and skill as a photographer that saves the day."
Your technical skill as a photographer should enable you to take a sharp photograph with any gear. It should be intuitive how you set up your camera for different situations in order to nail the focus and sharpness. Assess the lightning conditions your in and translate that to how you need to set up the camera for a sharp picture. If you struggle here and have a low megapixel camera then you would struggle much more with a high megapixel camera. The higher the pixel count the more important becomes your technical skill to produce a sharp image. That´s because cameras with smaller pixel count are more forgiving than cameras with high pixel count.
In landscape photography, it's highly important to be able to take sharp images. We often use sharpness as a tool to lead the viewer in a certain direction of the image. So you may on some occasions need to predict sharpness beforehand and then execute it on your images. Techniques as focus stacking are often used in order to overcome a cameras lack of ability to produce sharp images from front to back in certain situations. There is not a perfect camera on the market, it's your technical training and skill as a photographer that saves the day.
The photographer's ability to compose
This is the most important thing and what you should spend the most of your time and money on in order to perfect. If you cant "see" good compositions when your out shooting then it doesn't matter if you take the picture with a pro camera such as the Nikon D850. It will still be a bad image. So set your mind in learning mode. Take courses from photographers that you like. Go to museums and watch how a landscape painter builds up their art. Spend time in nature and take lots and lots of photographs. At home when you go through your images note down what you like or don´t like about an image. Be critical but constructive. If you post your images online take note of what type of image get the most likes and if possible why. This takes time and not something you learn overnight.
When we go on to sites as Flickr, 500px and YouTube looking for landscape images we are constantly fed with amazing images and we are lead to believe that he or she always takes great images. For the most part, the more "skilled" photographers don´t post images that do not work and they don´t believe are up to standard. Depending on the photographer the "hit" rate for a good image can vary but when it comes down to it they all fail more often then they get it right. So the only way you will learn and be able to produce better images is to put your selves out there and take photos and learn from your mistakes. So investing your time and money to learn is very important for better quality images.
It can actually be beneficial for your learning process to try to "copy" a photographer that you like. And now I don´t mean to take their images. Try to recreate a few of his or her photographs in an environment that you have fairly easy access to. Break down the image into its fundamental parts end ask your selves, what makes this a good image? What do I find that´s pleasing to me? Eventually, you will be able to spot the kind of ingredients that makes up for a good image when your out and about taking pictures. You will gradually be better and better in taking pleasing images. You can find lots and lots of stunning images in the book Landscape photographer of the year 10´th year special edition. I bought this one and use it for my inspiration and education.
Below I summarized a few things that can help you become a better photographer and see more pleasing compositions before you even press the shutter button.
Study art and other photographers
Evaluate how they build up their images and what it is that makes the image work
Learn to distinguish what's good or bad light
Learn basics fundamentals in composition
Try recreating photos you like in environments you have easy access to
Continuously evaluate your pictures and be honest with yourself
Find situations and ways where you can break the basics in composition
Invest in your own ability and expose yourselves to interesting places
But most of all experiment and have fun
My 50 cents on the subject
So does gear matter for you? The answer is yes but it´s more important to know how to use a camera and its components correctly and adapt to different shooting situations than have the latest gear. So you should invest far more time and money in learning the skills of a photographer then buying new stuff. It's more important to know the fundamentals in composing and be able to direct your camera towards a more pleasing subject then owning the latest gear. Below I list a few hypothetical types of photographers and how gear could be of more or less importance in their photography. And yes I generalize a lot here so don´t cut my head off :D
The pixel peeper - He, because it's mostly a he, don´t need a camera because there will never be a camera good enough for him. Also, he spends more time looking at other images in order to find flaws then going out him selves and enjoying photography...:) Kidding aside. the essence of this is that this kind of person is more prone to technical aspects of the images than the image it selves so in this case gear matters a lot but mostly in the psychological nature of things.
The occasional photographer - This type of photographer don´t need gear that is bulky and highly technical. This is also the type of photographer that comes up to you and say that you have taken a nice image and in the same sentence said that you probably must have an expensive and good camera. This type of photographer would probably be better off with a camera that takes ok images in auto mode with no need for post-processing. In this case, the cameras auto functionality matter a lot more for the outcome of the picture but its still more important that the user knows how to compose pleasing images. So this type of photographer is better off spending more time and money learning photography before buying new gear.
The Instagrammer - The speed for uploading an image to Instagram is important. Today the pixel limit is around 1000 pixel in a square so there is NO need for high megapixel cameras. He or she can probably use their phone and still take great landscape photos to post but if you want a dedicated camera keep it simple. Spend your money on a camera that takes great JPEG images and have good connectivity with your phone or tablet etc. if you want to do post processing you can use various apps for that purpose.
The Landscape photography vlogger - Depending on your style of vlogging the gear you use can be different but most of the vloggers do some sort of travelling or hiking when it comes to photography. Mainly they post online and some print their images in about A3+ sizes. For that, you don´t need full frame cameras but they may need high-end gear for "show". With that, I mean that the gear they use is something that drives the interest of the view more than the need for the user. A vlogger would generally be better off with small and light gear because they are often out and about doing stuff and mostly posts their images online with occasionally prints.
For the vlogger, it´s however generally better to be a skilled photographer and he or she would be better off spending their money more on perfecting their craft then buying new gear.
The Landscape photography pro or enthusiast - The line between this two types are a bit grey. We have highly skilled enthusiasts that out skill the PRO photographer and vice versa. Everyone can be a PRO photographer but depending on if you are successful or not is more about your ability to take great images then using pro like gear. So for a landscape enthusiast and a PRO, I would say that its kind of an even race between the three parts of The image quality triangle. They have come to a skill level where certain gear can be beneficial and the know how to use it to their advantage. It may be that this kind of photographer need to produce images that are printable in very big sizes or that a client wants a specific type of image. Then more advanced type of gear can be of importance to you. But if they need to choose I would always say that learning new skills is for them better-spent money then upgrading the camera gear.
The traveler - In this category gear matters in the form that it must be travel-friendly. This type of photographer benefits from smaller and lighter gear by sheer physics. Its hard to travel with bulky and heavy gear and you tend to leave stuff behind that´s hard to take with you. So for the traveler a mirror less system with a few lenses can be an option. Regarding lenses they can benefit from a super zoom lens combined with a super wide to wide lens. If you need a tripod then a carbon fiber tripod would be a good start. But even for the traveler its more important to learn photography skills. That´s because they probably cant go back to the locations they want to photograph as often as you would if you shoot locally. So knowing how and when to shoot is probably more important for the traveler then the gear it selves.
Whats your take of the matter? Why do you think gear matter or not matter. Leave a comment below.