Landscapes are one of the most popular subjects for photography and having the right tools for the job, makes the experience and time spent of capturing the beauty of our world even more enjoyable. Having the right camera therefore, comes down to having the right features and specifications to match this subject, the shooting conditions and ultimately the final results. So, what is the ultimate landscape camera? In the days of film, it would perhaps have been a 4×5 large format camera, such as an Ebony or Linhof. Ultimate size for ultimate quality. With the advent of digital, the choice is even greater. No longer do you need to shoot with a medium format camera. Both Nikon and Canon have top end SLR’s, seemingly ideal for the job and if Canon’s new 5Ds isn’t the ultimate landscape camera, then what is?
Well, it’s the Olympus OMD E-M1 obviously!
Wait! Before you click off this blog, thinking I’ve gone mad/you’re not interested as you don’t own one/it’s just an advert for Olympus/or your heard it all before…hear me out.
So, what is it about this camera that makes it so ideal for the landscape photographer to capture the best images. Well, let me tell you…
It’s Micro Four-Thirds
Woah! You’ve failed at the first hurdle I bet you’re all thinking to yourself! Is this man mad? But no, Micro Four Thirds is THE ideal format for landscape photography and yes, I am sober writing this! So, why is this the perfect format, well let’s break it down.
The 4:3 ratio of this format is close to the 4:5 ratio of large format film cameras. Just look at the greats who used to shoot with this format. Ansel Adams, Joe Cornish, David Ward, to name but a few, all these great landscapers were shooting with this ideal format for their landscape images because it makes the most balanced format. The 3:2 format of a modern digital SLR camera, is too biased on the rectangle. It causes the eye to scan the image across the frame, whether horizontal or vertical, whereas, the image should be seen as a whole. Foreground elements and main focal points can easily be used to draw the viewers eye around the image, but the elongated rectangle of 3:2, over emphasises this aspect, causing the eye to look up and down the image to scan the whole area. When I was shooting with my Canon 5D MKII, I was always cropping off the top and bottom of the image in post-processing, because the image had too much sky or too much empty foreground and this was just extra area of the frame that had no benefit to the final result. If you’ve not tried this crop with your images, then give it a go. I guarantee it will change the way you view your landscapes!
16mp (or soon to be 20mp)
Micro 4/3 has the perfect number of megapixels per image. Now, I know the Nikon’s and Canon’s (and Sony’s of course) have reached 40-50+ mp, but who needs that amount of data really? How many of us shoot and print billboard-size images that this kind of file size can handle? Who is cropping their image so much that only
50mp will do to compensate for the extreme cropping being done? A 16mp M43 file, will easily print to A3 size and if needed, you could print at 20×30 and be more than happy with the result. The result would satisfy 90% of photographers and for the average pro photographer, anything over 20mp and you are having to scale your image down to a suitable size to supply your images to an online photo library. Libraries are a leading source of photography that supplies images to its clients to be used from tiny thumbnails on websites, to billboard-sized images, all from an average 50mb file, not a 140mb file (8bit Tiff) from a 5Ds, as they would be rejected at the submission stage.
So, if you’re thinking you need the latest 50mp beast so you can crop without worry, then maybe you need to be looking at your shooting technique! If you are cropping to the extreme, then maybe you need to take more care of your compositions. Maybe you’re using the wrong lenses and trying to compensate. Yes, 50mp has its place and can now match the file size that only digital medium format used to achieve, but you could drive to the shops in Lamborghini, but a family saloon will do it just as well!
One of the other advantages of Micro 4/3 is depth-of-field. The crop factor of these sensors means that achieving a shallow depth-of-field is more difficult to achieve than with a full-frame camera, but of course, in landscape photography, we are usually trying to achieve the opposite effect. So, an ideal f8 aperture equals an f16 aperture with regard to depth-of-field with a full-frame camera. It’s a breeze to achieve front-to-back sharpness with the E-M1. No tilt lens required, no f22 apertures with the resulting diffraction effects. Just shoot at mid-apertures and sleep easy that your images are pin-sharp from foreground rock to distant mountain. How much of a pain is it to achieve this perfection with a full-frame camera? Be honest. Not so with Micro 4/3!
So, what’s the disadvantage of these smaller sensors of Micro 4/3? Increased noise you say? Well, yes if you are shooting at 1600 ISO and above, but when do you do that with a typical landscape? For ultimate image quality, most landscape photographers shoot at 100 or 200 ISO and the 100/200 ISO on a Micro 4/3 sensor can easily hold its own against the 100/200 ISO on a full-frame camera. Well, what about dynamic range I hear you cry? Noise in the shadows. M4/3 can’t handle extremes of contrast. Well, ladies and gentleman, I give you the solution. Filters.
Yes, filters. Filters are just as relevant in today’s photography as they ever were. In fact, filters are as important a tool for the landscape photographer as the tripod is and always will be. Top end hi-res sensors can shoot at high ISO’s, resulting in high shutter speeds with low noise/high image quality, but does this stop you using a tripod for your landscape shoots? Of course not, as it’s an essential tool for landscapes. Filters, whether its ND standards, ND grads, polarisers or even tobacco grads (ok, I’m joking about the last one, but then again, whatever happened to the tobacco grad…and the star filter… but I digress!). All these filters are still relevant and important for landscape photography and just because you could get away without a 0.6 ND grad because of the dynamic range with the Nikon D810, doesn’t necessarily mean you should! ND grad filters are designed to control contrast. What’s the point of adding a false one in Photoshop, when you can add a real one in real life? Not everything has to be done in Photoshop and surely the pleasure of landscape photography is being out in the field, capturing the beauty of our world, enjoying the moment and getting your images technically perfect in-camera.
So, back to the E-M1 in particular. Apart from being Micro 4/3, what else makes this the ultimate landscape camera? Well, let’s look a bit deeper…
Water and weatherproof
If you need a camera that can cope with even the most extreme climate, then this camera is THE camera! Shoot in the dustiest desert, shoot in the rain, shoot from inside your freezer (its freeze-proof too of course!), this camera can handle all the demands you lay on it and survive. Couple it with the Pro lenses and you are fully sealed and protected to shoot the world. This camera is climate change-proof!
I have been a pro photographer for over 20 years. I started off with a 35mm film camera, then moved to medium format and then bought a 6×17 panoramic camera (what a beast that was!). I never did reach the dizzy heights of large format cameras, but as soon as digital cameras came along, my cameras started shrinking again. My back still hasn’t forgiven me for the old days and yes, it’s getting harder to carry heavy camera gear, plus tripod all day. I like small and light camera gear. I can carry them further. I can carry them for longer. I don’t mind carrying them, full stop. The E-M1 is light. It’s small. The lenses are small. I’m a happy landscaper! My back is happier too!
The E-M1 has been designed with the landscape photographer in mind, much more than any other camera and Nikon and Canon could do well to look carefully at Olympus’ designs.
Flip-up LCD screen
I’m 6’2ft. I don’t always carry a full-size tripod. I don’t always use a full-size tripod at full height. It’s not comfortable crouching down trying to look at a rear screen or even the viewfinder on the back of an SLR. With the E-M1, I can flip the screen up, so it points up to me. This makes it easier to view. It makes it feel like I’m using my old Mamiya RZ67 medium format camera that I used to use for landscapes, with its waist-level viewfinder. I find this viewing angle engages you with the landscape more. I can even use the screen in this position with a Hoodman loupe. It’s a great way to compose an image.
Live Bulb mode
I love shooting long exposures. These require ND filters, like the Lee Big Stopper (see filters are fun!). The exposure times can be tricky to calculate and changes in light conditions during long exposures can upset the calculations. These make my brain hurt!
With the Live Bulb mode on the E-M1, I see the image ‘develop’ before my eyes on the camera’s LCD screen. I even get a histogram to compare with the developing image. I can’t fail to get my image spot-on first time. These things make life easier. These things matter.
Camera manufacturers design their cameras to cater for the mass market of buyers. They listen to photographers and hopefully design their cameras to suit most people. If you’re not one of these ‘most’ people, then what do you do? A camera manufacturer can put buttons and dials on the camera, where they ‘think’ you will like them and for what they think you will want each one to do. But what if you disagree with their decision. With most cameras, you have to accept and learn to adapt. With the E-M1 however, you just change it! The Video button on my E-M1 for instance, in aperture priority mode, I’ve set to change the shooting format. I bet 90% of the users who own an E-M1 don’t have this button set up like this. This is my camera however, and because of this customisation, it works for me. It feels part of me and fits the way I work. This is what I need from my landscape camera.
I like shooting panoramics. I use an Arca Swiss L-bracket fitted to my E-M1, so that I can position the camera directly over the centre of the tripod in the vertical position for shooting accurate panoramics. However, in doing this I can’t plug in the cable-release because the socket is now blocked by the camera siting on the tripod. Fail! My camera isn’t perfect after all.
But hold on, I can customise this camera. I can customise the self-timer. I can set the camera to take 9 images on a 3-second self-timer with a 2-second delay between each frame. I press the shutter once; I move the camera between each frame (in the 2-second interval) to make the overlapping frames. I don’t need the cable release for this type of shooting. I don’t know if Olympus had this in mind when they worked on the self-timer options, but…it works. Is this the best camera ever?!
Of course, the alternative way of doing this, is to fire the shutter from my iPhone, which is connected to the camera via Wi-Fi, because the camera also has Wi-Fi built in…of course it does! I can change the shutter speed, aperture, change the autofocus, view the Live View image and transfer the results to my phone. All because of Wi-Fi. A great addition to this camera.
Depth-of-field preview button. Tick
Built in horizon-level. Tick
Exposure simulation. Tick
Square format option. Tick
So, there you go. The E-M1. The ultimate landscape camera. It has everything you could want from a landscape camera. But wait, there may be another camera to defeat this camera and take its reign as the supreme champ…just what will the E-M1 MKII offer!